Cam Cole: Letang-less Penguins fall to Rangers in opener

 

New York takes opener, 2-1

 
 
 
 
Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins (left, in action against John Moore of the New York Rangers earlier this season) says it's irrelevant which team is the favourite heading into their series. 'Once you get in the playoffs, it doesn't really matter what you're perceived as,' he says.
 

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins (left, in action against John Moore of the New York Rangers earlier this season) says it's irrelevant which team is the favourite heading into their series. 'Once you get in the playoffs, it doesn't really matter what you're perceived as,' he says.

Photograph by: Jared Silber, NHLI via Getty Images

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NEW YORK — Remember that scene in Sleepless in Seattle? Of course you do.

Doubt-ridden Meg Ryan and oblivious Bill Pullman are picking out china at Tiffany’s …

Salesperson: “How many place settings should I put down?”

Meg and Bill, in unison: “Ten.”

Because, they agree, eight is too few and 12 is too many.

As if everything was going to work out because they would have the perfect number of dinner plates.

Cut to the visitors’ dressing room at Madison Square Garden, where the Pittsburgh Penguins have just concluded their morning skate Thursday prior to Game 1, and Ben Lovejoy is waxing eloquent.

“Six is the perfect number for defencemen,” said the blueliner acquired from Anaheim at the trade deadline. “Seven is too many, five is not enough.”

Well, after playing a defenceman short during the season’s waning days, because the club had no salary cap room to bring up replacements, the Penguins managed to put the customary six on the lineup sheet for the opener against the New York Rangers.

And it would be hard to lay the blame for their 2-1 Game 1 loss on the blueline corps, considering that it was Marc-Andre Fleury who kicked out a fat rebound to Derick Brassard for the first New York goal, 28 seconds in, and allowed a point shot by Ryan McDonagh to filter through his equipment on the second one --- and two is all it took.

Still, it is the state of the Pens’ defence, period, that looks tenous, and if the Rangers win this series, as they should, it will be in no small part because of New York’s superiority at keeping puck out of their net.

“It’s not going to be easy (even) with six,” Lovejoy said. “They won the Presidents Trophy for a reason.”

Especially when one of the six isn’t Kris Letang. And another isn’t Olli Maatta. And another isn’t Christian Ehrhoff. What’s left of the Pens’ blueline is not all that adept at moving the puck.

The Pens entered Game 1 with a defence corps of Rob Scuderi, Paul Martin, Lovejoy, Ian Cole, Brian Dumoulin and Taylor Chorney. The ’82 Islanders, they’re not.

It still looks like a lot of minutes for the first four --- Scuderi took a stick to the beak, and had to miss a shift or two to get stitched up, but still played 21:09, at age 36 --- and the more minutes you pile on players who aren’t suited to play them, the greater the risk of errors of fatigue.

The Rangers got a small taste of that in the last half of the third period when Dan Girardi took a deflected puck off the side of his head and didn’t return.

“Some guys are capable of playing 25 to 30 minutes. They’re much more efficient players than I am,” admitted Lovejoy, who played just under 23 Thursday.

“We did what we had to do to get into the playoffs. But having six is great.”

Having one of them named Letang would be a lot better, but the gifted 28-year-old is out with a concussion and isn’t expected back soon.

“He’s the first guy over the boards in all situations,” said Lovejoy. “He’s our best power play defenceman, our best penalty kill defenceman, our best 4-on-4 defenceman. We absolutely miss him.”

Letang may be as valuable a piece of the Penguins’ overall offensive puzzle as either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, point totals notwithstanding.

“He’s a big part of it, plays a ton of minutes for us,” acknowledged Crosby, who played just 3:42 in the first period when the Pens beat a well-worn path to the penalty box, but nearly 16 minutes of the final 40, when Pittsburgh got back in the game on a goal by Blake Comeau.

“I think we can play with them, we just have to be ready to go from the first minute,” said Fleury, who was terrific in the last half of the game, and stopped 36 of 38 New York shots.

And still, the Penguins lost.

Their late-season swoon, playing shorthanded, was embarrassing to GM Jim Rutherford, hazardous to head coach Mike Johnston’s job security, annoying to some of the players (Crosby reportedly among them), taxing to the five healthy D, and nearly fatal to the team’s playoff hopes.

Squeaking into the post-season by beating the tanking Sabres 2-0 on the last day of the regular season is not really the stuff of inspirational speeches about character. Nor is the fact that the Pens now have the requisite number of bodies on the blueline any guarantee that a No. 8 seed will be able to compete with the Rangers in a best-of-seven. This could be a short series with a lot of close games.

The Pens were heavy favourites coming into last year’s series. They’re not this time.

“I’ve been on both sides of it,” said Crosby, who was held to a single shot on goal, and lost Brassard on the first goal. “Once you get in the playoffs, it doesn’t really matter what you’re perceived as.

“Last year, we kind of coasted in just trying not to get injured, this year it’s coming in fighting pretty hard for the last week-and-a-half, so I think that’s something that will hopefully help us.”

They’ll need it. All the help they can get.

ccole@vancouversun.com

Twitter.com/rcamcole

 
 
 
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Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins (left, in action against John Moore of the New York Rangers earlier this season) says it's irrelevant which team is the favourite heading into their series. 'Once you get in the playoffs, it doesn't really matter what you're perceived as,' he says.
 

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins (left, in action against John Moore of the New York Rangers earlier this season) says it's irrelevant which team is the favourite heading into their series. 'Once you get in the playoffs, it doesn't really matter what you're perceived as,' he says.

Photograph by: Jared Silber, NHLI via Getty Images

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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